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Rock ’n’ Old: Why the Age Gap Between Rock Stars and Their Fans Has Never Been Wider

Popular rock bands are now far older than their pop and hip-hop peers, which completely changes how we relate to them as listeners

A few weeks ago, the annual MTV Video Music Awards took place, honoring what’s best or most popular or whatever in music videos. And in the buildup to the show, Pitchfork reviews editor Jeremy D. Larson noticed something interesting about the Best Rock nominees: They’re all old dudes.

As was quickly established in his mentions, Larson wasn’t basing his observation on actual math but, rather, a feeling about the age of these vocalists. For the record, here are their ages:

  • Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump: 34
  • Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl: 49
  • Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds: 31
  • Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington: died last year at the age of 41
  • Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie: 31
  • Thirty Seconds to Mars’ Jared Leto: 46

Crunching the numbers, the average age is just slightly under 39. Still, Larson’s comment got me thinking about our relationship to the people singing rock songs. And just as rock music’s cultural importance has shifted radically over the last couple decades, so too do we no longer look at vocalists the same way we did in previous generations. In the past, a front man was a voice of a generation — or at the very least, somebody from your generation. Nowadays, if you’re coming of age, your rock stars are older guys.

Before anyone comments to defend modern rock artists or declare that contemporary rock ’n’ roll is just as exciting as it ever was, know that I’m not trying to start a “Things used to be better back in my day” argument. Great rock music is being made today, just like it was decades ago. But what has changed is the music’s dominance of the cultural conversation. Hip-hop, R&B and pop have surpassed rock as our musical heartbeat, and as a result, those genres’ stars are the industry’s heavy-hitters and cultural arbiters. And they’re younger.

Though hardly a perfect barometer of popularity and societal impact, let’s look at this year’s VMA nominees, which were led by artists such as Camila Cabello (who’s 21), Ariana Grande (25), Cardi B (25), Ed Sheeran (27), Drake (31), Bruno Mars (32) and Childish Gambino (34). In this world, the elder statesmen are Beyoncé (37) and Jay-Z (48) — practically pop royalty — and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (39) is a guy who’s seemingly months away from getting his AARP card.

Age-wise, the VMA’s Best Rock category easily contains the oldest group of nominees, and even on the Billboard Rock and Alternative charts, the successes are groups like Twenty One Pilots (lead singer Tyler Joseph is 29); Foster the People (Mark Foster is 34); Portugal. The Man (John Gourley is 37); and John Mayer (40). Simply put, you see few big rock bands with lead singers who are younger than Kurt Cobain was when he killed himself at the age of 27.

To be clear: You don’t have to be “young” to appreciate rock music — or any music, for that matter — but rock is the one genre currently being led by greybeards, which changes how “young” people interact with the music. And by “young,” I’m talking about teenagers, the age when the most meaningful connection with music is made.

There are enough studies to suggest that the music we listen to as teens has a powerful effect on us, in some ways hardwiring our musical preferences for the rest of our lives. Not that you need studies to tell you that: From your own experience as an adolescent, you can probably confirm that those early years shaped your relationship with songs, and just as importantly, your relationship with who sings them. For children of the 1960s, the Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan — guys in their 20s — were hugely important. When those kids became parents, their children were drawn to Nirvana and Pearl Jam — more guys in their 20s.

That tight generational connection can still exist. Twenty One Pilots’ 2015 hit “Stressed Out” plays like an ode to our anxious, overmedicated, debt-ridden age, featuring lyrics that speak to a universal desire to return to a more innocent time. “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,” Joseph sings. “But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.” Then he gets to the chorus: “Wish we could turn back time / to the good old days / When our momma sang us to sleep / But now we’re stressed out.” It’s a classic quarter-life crisis lament — the realization that adulthood is permanent, and that the first pangs of nostalgia are encroaching — that speaks directly to twentysomethings. (And younger: My teenage niece really loves the song, too.)

“Stressed Out” is a rock song that connects directly to a deeply relatable youthful experience, but it’s an exception. Foo Fighters’ recent single “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” sounds like classic rock. Fall Out Boy’s “Champion” feels like the same old pop-punk they were making a decade ago. Even Imagine Dragons’ VMA-nominated, “Whatever It Takes,” has a generic, you-can-do-it tone that lacks any sense of generational urgency or specificity.

As a result, popular rock acts are, at best, an older brother, a hip aging uncle or that former crush shifting awkwardly into middle age. Leto has been in the public eye for decades, seguing from acting to music back to acting (and an Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club) and then back to music. From a teenager’s perspective, he’s basically just a Professional Famous Person. Likewise, Grohl was Nirvana’s drummer, parlaying that into the long-running success of Foo Fighters. If younger listeners are getting into these bands now, it’s perhaps through an older sibling — or maybe even their parents. And Grohl has noticed: In an Entertainment Weekly interview last year, he said, “It’s weird when there’s a kid on the bill who comes up and says, ‘Your band was my first concert.’ You just think, ‘Oh no. I’m that guy, now? What am I, fucking Gandalf?’”

In a way, these rockers are a testament to longevity, offering younger listeners a different, more mature perspective on life. But as newer rock stars fight to get attention and older acts dominate the touring circuit and rock radio — turn on an alternative station right now and the chances are very good that Red Hot Chili Peppers or Green Day are playing — the music’s ability to be a generational guide and bellwether has largely slipped away. (Not that millennial rock artists aren’t plugged into the wider world: Reynolds, a lifelong Mormon who’s straight, made a documentary, Believer, which tried to reconcile his faith with the religion’s demonizing of LGBTQ people.)

And so, nowadays, when rock does make an impact on the charts, it’s not for expressing zeitgeist-y sentiments — it’s for recreating the past. This week, Rolling Stone ran a feature about the trend of rock acts (new or old) covering past hits. Weezer (whose frontman, Rivers Cuomo, is 48) had one of their biggest hits in years with their take on Toto’s “Africa.” But even newer groups, such as Bad Wolves (which consists of hard-rock veterans who have moved on from their previous underground bands), have gained a little prominence by redoing an older song, the Cranberries’ 1990s smash “Zombie.” The reason: It’s the only way to snag the ears of listeners who have stopped seeing rock as a viable new art form, preferring to indulge in nostalgia for old songs in fresh packaging. As Bad Wolves’ label head told Rolling Stone, the Cranberries cover “helped Bad Wolves begin a relationship with a mass audience. It spreads beyond the specific genre of the artist. It’s a smart thing to do.”

It’s also a sign of what we want out of rock stars in 2018. There was a time when Mick Jagger or Eddie Vedder expressed the angst and uncertainty of their age, tapping into a collective unconscious (even if those past eras were incredibly male, incredibly white and incredibly straight). Those generational voices have now mostly moved to other genres. Rock was once a music of defiance and rebellion for the masses. Now, it’s mostly comforting, reaching the mainstream by tapping into the past. “Teenage angst has paid off well,” Cobain once sarcastically sang, “Now I’m bored and old.”

However, if Cobain had lived, he’d be 51 — and part of a rock era in which “old” isn’t so much of a stigma anymore.